How Egypt Got Her Voice Back

Robert Stribley   February 7, 2011
In Tahrir Square, a man thanks Facebook. (image via monasosh)

The job of a despot just ain’t what it used to be. Ask Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He tried taking down the internet. He tried cutting off cellular communications. Still, the Egyptian people found a way to speak. Not just to speak though, but also to communicate their message broadly, through the Internet, to all the peoples of Earth.

Dramatic stuff, huh? Indeed, we’re lucky to live in such times. A hundred years ago and for eons before, such an uprising would’ve been put down quickly and violently and few would have heard or seen the details of what unfolded beyond the immediate area. Now, however, there are cameras and cell phones recording. And there are content distribution platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr to feed the resulting information quickly to the rest of the world. For this reason, many believe that the current uprising in Egypt originated not with any political or religious faction, but with what’s been rather loosely referred to as the “Facebook generation.” That may be a somewhat inexact descriptor, but it speaks to something that feels like the truth.

When Mubarak and company shut down the phones, the Internet and any other form of communication they could get their grubby hands on, some suggested that reliance upon social media as a coordinating force had been overrated, since the crowds continued to gather in Tahrir Square anyway. Regardless, we began to see an interesting pattern: whenever communications channels were cut, the Egyptian people and those sympathetic to them found effective ways to restore those channels – or to create new channels. The need for communication proved a rushing stream: throw a few boulders in it and the waters soon began to lap, then run as a torrent around them. Give people the ability, the technology to communicate and not only will they embrace it, but they’ll fight to keep it.

How’d they go about this? Who helped them? Let’s have a look.

Some big names stepped up to fill the communications gaps Mubarak enforced in Egypt. Namely, Google and Twitter rushed voice-to-tweet functionality to market, specifically for the Egyptian people. People can call one of two numbers and leave a message, which is then posted as a tweet to the Speak to Tweet account on Twitter. Clicking on a tweet sends users to SayNow, a company recently acquired by Google, which hosts the files as audio you can listen to and share. These tweets include #Egypt as a hashtag, so they can be found easily, or any other country calls are originating from when possible.

I’m not sure how successful this effort has been, especially since the tweets apparently aren’t curated and, other than the hashtag, each tweet gives no hint as to its precise content. However, the new functionality was certainly trumpeted far and wide, and it must be a valuable trough for anyone with the time and skill to wade through it.

The Arabic-language news network Al Jazeera also found some creative ways to give Egyptians their voice back. Using services like ScribbleLive, Al Jazeera has been able to expedite stories from their reporters online via technology as clunky as a landline, if cellular networks aren’t available. Analog again meets digital for the benefit of the people. ScribbleLive’s service allows calls to be saved as mp3s and published with minimal hassle. It’s a service that first emerged when it enabled another news service to extend a megaphone to the voice of the people: Canada’s Global News used it to cover the protests at the 2010 G20.

Deprived of access to the Internet, some Egyptians are really kicking it old school, resorting to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and other computer-to-computer communications to exchange information. You’ll recall that BBS were originally set up to mimic real-world cork bulletin boards, where people could pin up flyers and community announcements. They also allow users to communicate via something called a “modem.” You remember those, right?

Word of these creative if retrogressive steps can be found in the chatter on Twitter, where so much of the news from Egypt has surfaced first due to Twitter’s extraordinary immediacy. For that reason, the networks and the news channels find themselves constantly referring us to Twitter, with ABC, CNN and NBC even highlighting and referring to the tweet aggregator TweetDeck by name on occasion, which must mean a boon for that little company.

Those tweets aren’t just coming from Egypt either. They’re coming from Tunisia and Jordan and other points across the Middle East, too. Worldwide, people yearn to be free. We’re still learning exactly how powerful and provocative the Internet can be in enabling them towards that freedom.

What creative ways have you seen people use to reestablish and maintain channels of communication under duress? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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2 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stefano Maggi, Robert A Stribley. Robert A Stribley said: I've got a new piece on Scatter/Gather about folks helping Egyptians communicate after Mubarak's crackdown #razorfish […]

  2. […] Razorfish blog, scatter/gather, covered our use by Al Jazeera to cover the Egyptian crisis. The Arabic-language news network Al […]

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